Working as a public servant in Canada. Good idea or bad idea?
March 25, 2009 6:47 PM   Subscribe

Working as a public servant in Canada. Good idea or bad idea?

I'm thinking of taking a job with the federal government. Notwithstanding the job itself, would you say that it's a good idea or a bad idea to work in the Canadian federal government as a public servant? I'm looking for your experience, or any anecdotes you can provide, as well as any facts you can muster. Details about the benefits, environment, etc. are welcome. This is in Ottawa, if it matters.
posted by Simon Barclay to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You'll probably have to give more detail. Are you thinking of working in Foreign Affairs, as an EI claims adjuster, what?

Ottawa is a lovely city, I can say that much. And my sister seems to love her work in FA.
posted by Lemurrhea at 7:14 PM on March 25, 2009

You'd have a strong union and I don't remember ever hearing about layoffs in that sector. (Just speaking as a moderately well-informed Canadian; never worked in the public sector myself.)
posted by zadcat at 7:28 PM on March 25, 2009

I'm not saying my experience is representative of all the government, but I've worked in a canadian government research facility for a year as an intern (does this count?).

It was a place where 'once you're in, you're in' -- so few of the people working there were permanent employees, the rest were hired on a contract basis (lower pay, no security, less benefits). Kind of a sore point to a lot of people I knew working there. It also seemed to be the (unofficial) consensus among the more junior staff that all the pricks and misfits are the ones who stay and advance through the ranks of government research -- the ones who are really talented and personable tend to move on quickly, because they get snapped up by industry (which pays far, far more). So yeah, my top boss was a real asshole, as were the other research group leaders I met in that facility.

But otherwise it was a reasonably cushy job, low pay as compared to other comparable jobs but lots of collaboration and conference type stuff which was fun. And aside from those senior researchers, everyone was very nice. Working for the government for a little while would probably suit you just fine, and hopefully get you some contacts for better jobs later on.
posted by lizbunny at 7:29 PM on March 25, 2009

Do you intend to live in Ottawa for a long time? If so, well, it's a company town. You might as well work for the company.

The vacations, benefits, security of employment are all very nice. The fact that everything has to be done according to rules, and properly authorized, takes some time to adjust to, and it's just not for some people. It's next to impossible to fire someone, so it can lead to situations like the one lizbunny describes. On the other hand, right now everyone at the top is retiring, so you could rise through the ranks fast, if that's your style.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:49 PM on March 25, 2009

If you are looking for job security, benefits and good vacation you can do alot worse.

If you are looking for high wages, this is the wrong place for you.

It really depends on the team/group/department/agency that you end up with. Before I joined the borg, I did several long-term contracts with various agencies. Some were amazing - progressive and well ahead of private industry. Others were much as lizbunny stated...
posted by jkaczor at 8:05 PM on March 25, 2009

It depends on largely on which department you work in and whether you eventually want to return to the private sector.

Anecdotally, I have a friend with an economics MA who's been working for the gov, first in competitions (which, in his instance, wasn't seriously challenging [mostly because it doesn't demand the skills that he trained during his MA] but the work/office environment was great, his workmates professional, his boss knowlegeable, some paid travel around Canada, and the work occassionally interesting) then being 'loaned out' to an 'experimental' fisheries dept.

Man, what a gong show. Apathy, lack of focus, lack of mission, lack of inter-departmental communication/sharing/respect, petty politicking, people in positions that they aren't qualified for, insanely inane makework, &c&c. Luckily, his being 'loaned out' term is coming to a close and his old department is happy to have him back.

He started out working in Ottawa but managed to request a transfer back to Vancouver (where he and his fiance, who has a good job here, grew up) to get married.

There's some stigma, if you want to work in the private sector again, against people who've spent more than a few years with the fed. Unjust stereotype, perhaps, but apparently there are enough anecdotes to justify a stereotype.

The pay's ok, the benefits good, especially if you plan on having a kid/kids. How personally ambitious are you? If you were ultra ambitious, it might not be the best place to pursue a career. It's not called 'government work' for nothing. There was some talk about the Canadian stimulus spending and how there are provisions for enhancing job stability for public servants.
posted by porpoise at 8:30 PM on March 25, 2009

I've made it to the interview stage for two different positions in Transport Canada and the one thing that struck me was how many questions basically boiled down to "How do you handle working in a dysfunctional workplace?"

In general the hiring process is impersonal, involves a lot of tests, and saps your will to live as it drags on for months.
I declined an interview with the NRC where the *preliminary* interview required me to make a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation to the hiring board on how I met the qualification requirements for the job.
posted by cardboard at 8:49 PM on March 25, 2009

I once had a summer co-op job for a federal government ministry making websites for their intranet. Demographically I didn't fit in; I was 20 and the rest of the office was mostly older women (gender ratio about 20:1, average age maybe 40 or 45). It felt like a very slow place. Someone joked once that 10% of the people did 90% of the work and that felt about right to me; most people seemed to work at a very comfortable pace, and that's saying it politely. By 3:00 pm the early birds who started work at 7:00 were heading home, and by 5:00 the office was quiet as a ghost town. The few projects I was working on tended to move along at a glacial pace, and I had a three week span where nobody would give me any work, so instead I played Tetris on my computer. By the end of those three weeks, I would look at the city skyline on the bus ride home and I would see Tetris blocks falling into the gaps between buildings. It was not a bad gig for a summer but I would not want to do it full time.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:14 PM on March 25, 2009

"Notwithstanding the job itself, would you say that it's a good idea or a bad idea to work in the Canadian federal government as a public servant?"

The job itself matters very much, is its relative merits will determine how willing you are to tolerate the various compromises of public service as outlined above. The job security is desirable (assuming the job is 'indeterminate', i.e. a permanent position rather than 'term', i.e. short-term contract), and the pay is somewhat better-than-average at the low end of the scale (considering vacation, benefits, and pension if you're in for the long haul) and worse-than-average in higher-level positions. If you're doing work that you feel is particularly important to society you will probably find it much easier to tolerate the slow pace of organizational change and sometimes excessively hierarchical structure. If you're a politically active person, you may face some restrictions as to your public participation in such things... but that may not affect you.

In my field and with my present level of experience, at least, the terms of employment are demonstrably better with the federal government than in the private sector. The professionals in my department (lawyers) are paid much less than private sector counterparts but as I understand it their work-life balance is better especially when it comes to maternity/parental leave, which may or may not sway you. There is all of the stereotypical government-work paper-pushing, but I have found that it is not that far in excess of what you would find in very large private employers (e.g. banks).

Working in the "NCR" (National Capitol Region, i.e. Ottawa/Gatineau), your facility with French and/or your capacity for improving it will be important to your future career prospects. Outside the NCR, not so much. A bilingual workplace is stimulating to some, frustrating for others.

The labour relations environment (heavily unionized) is a sticking point for some, but the government's HR policies and the most humane I have encountered and this is ultimately the source of the improved terms of employment. On the other hand, the government is the one employer that can unilaterally alter the collective bargaining process when it so chooses, as was the case in the recent budget which removes the right to bargaining or arbitration on wages for several years.
posted by onshi at 4:35 AM on March 26, 2009

As others have said, it very much depends on the job and department. There are layoffs underway in some areas at the moment, affecting a couple of people I know.

I haven't actually worked as a public servant but I've done a few contracts in various places. Generally I found it incredibly frustrating - the whole workplace atmosphere and attitude was so different to anything I'd experienced before. I encountered very few people committed to doing a good job, showing any kind of initiative, or working hard. I'm sure that's not the case everywhere, but if you don't enjoy that environment it may not be for you. And as porpoise said earlier, working there can cause problems if you leave the government for another job. If you bring the clock-watching "don't work hard unless you have to" approach to a private organisation you're not going to survive.

Extreme examples:

One fairly senior manager I met arrived at 10, walked into his office and closed the door. Left at noon for lunch. Came back at 1:30, closed his office door. Left at 3:30. Every single day for the 4 months I was on contract there. The 50 or so people who reported to him never saw him, so effectively ran that (non trivial - public safety related) department themselves.

Somebody else I know was on contract recently and every week was given all week to write a report that took 2 hours. Early on he would write it on Monday, send it around for review and have to include changes that destroyed the entire report because he couldn't ignore anybody's feedback, incorrect or misguided as it was. One week he surfed the net all week, wrote the report at 3pm on a Friday and handed it without circulating it for review. He was praised for writing the best report ever but criticised for not having it reviewed. He left shortly afterwards.

More recently, in my current job, I was invited to set up a booth in the lobby of a tower downtown to sell products. It was a Monday lunchtime in the late spring so people weren't on summer holidays yet, but it was a total waste of time. I was told over and over again that because it rained all weekend and the Monday was a beautiful day, at least 50% of the people in the building called in sick.

I'm sure there are many people and departments that don't work in this way, but you don't hear about about them very often in the consulting world. Entry-level pay isn't great, but the benefits are, and many positions will include a good amount of training programs.

If you are committed to hard work, working in a positive atmosphere, etc, it may not be for you unless you can find a place that needs that. However, if you can live without that - either as a career (which many do) - or as a short-term thing to get some skills and experience then it could be ok.
posted by valleys at 6:39 AM on March 26, 2009

On the flip side, my friends in the PS who put in a reasonable but not Herculean effort are lauded by their supervisors as rising stars. The 10% who do 90% of the work do get recognized.
posted by cardboard at 6:50 AM on March 26, 2009

"On the flip side, my friends in the PS who put in a reasonable but not Herculean effort are lauded by their supervisors as rising stars. The 10% who do 90% of the work do get recognized."

To temper things a little, this was just as true in the private-sector workplaces that I have worked at in the past.
posted by onshi at 8:11 AM on March 26, 2009

It takes a certain type of person to enjoy working for the Federal Government in Canada. I love my job. I've had a full range of experiences from bad to good. I don't like how the senior levels work, but I can't imagine it being much better in the private sector.
The only way to tell if you like it, is to give it a try. It might take a while to get an indeterminate (permanent) position and only you can decide whether it is worth it.

The biggest benefit for me, is the fact that I'm doing something that matters. I'm not helping some old man make money.

As everyone has said, the benefits can be great (a full year of paternity leave!). The hiring process is insanely long and complicated. Good new is, once you are in, your in. That means that you can move around without having to go through the full process. You can have a varied career (different types of jobs) without ever giving up your job security.

French will be an issue if you want to rise in the ranks or have a job that performs a service for the public or many public servants in the National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau). Do you have some French? Do you like languages? If you don't want to learn French you will be wasting your and the government's time.

memail me if you want to ask me any specifics.
posted by Gor-ella at 11:05 AM on March 26, 2009

Oh I meant also to say that Ottawa is the best place to have a career in the public service because you have access to more career opportunities. In a region (anywhere else) there just aren't as many jobs or departments. Also career development is great in the government.
posted by Gor-ella at 11:08 AM on March 26, 2009

Although I only marked some answers as "best", all of the answers are helpful. It looks like the fact that I live in Ottawa and speak French are both big pluses.

I think I will try to pursue a career with the public service. If this thread is still open if/when I get an answer (how long do AskMeFi threads stay open? a year? maybe I'll have an answer by then...), I'll come back here and let you know how it went.
posted by Simon Barclay at 5:01 PM on March 26, 2009

Well, I did it. I'm now a public servant, and so far, so good. Thanks again for the advice, everyone.

Yay AskMetaFilter!
posted by Simon Barclay at 5:25 PM on September 24, 2009

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